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Nikkei al descubierto: una columna de poesía

Murmurs and Bones

We are honored to present three pieces here from South Dakota State Poet Laureate (2015-2019), Lee Ann Roripaugh. A personal and clanging reflection on the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami and earthquake, these poems are stunning murmurations of memory hitting against bone, of shadows that never quite evaporate, of ghosts alive and well in our presence. Enjoy…

—traci kato-kiriyama

* * * * *

Lee Ann Roripaugh’s fifth volume of poetry, tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 (Milkweed Editions, 2019), was named a “Best Book of 2019” by the New York Public Library, selected as a poetry Finalist in the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards, cited as a Society of Midland Authors 2020 Honoree in Poetry, and was named one of the “50 Must-Read Poetry Collections in 2019” by Book Riot. She is the author of four other volumes of poetry: Dandarians, On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year, Year of the Snake, and Beyond Heart Mountain. Winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004, and a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series, she was the South Dakota State Poet Laureate from 2015-2019. Roripaugh is a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review. 


animal portents foretell the rise of tsunami

                      when elephants kneel
                      pressing their trunks
                      down to the ground
                      like seismic antennae

                      when mole rats head-drum
                      adumbrations / listen for
                      predictions / augured jawbones
                      snugged to tunnel walls

                      when cats spill from windows
                      slip through opened doors
                      some welder’s torch sizzle
                      fizzing the tips of their whiskers

                      when insect swarms clot the shore
                      in a frantic tangled macrame
                      and hippopotamuses bellow
                      a chorus of mournful cellos

                      when snakes awaken
                      from hibernation / curlicuing
                      up from their dens
                      like bolts come unscrewed --
                      their frozen bodies
                      a semiology of hieroglyphs
                      in the snow:

                      takadai ni tatsu
                      takadai ni tatsu
                      takadai ni tatsu
                      hayaku nigeru

                      when double-helixes spun by skeins
                      of flying sparrows unravel

                      when centipedes appear
                      in rippling synchronicities

                      when colonies of toads erupt
                      like burst popcorn
                      from ponds’ silver foil

                      when fish come unschooled

                      when bees abandon their queens
                      flee their honey

                      when silky clusters of bats lift
                      in smoky volcanic furies as if

                      rising / from a city ravished / in flame

white tsubame                       

                      after the tsubame disappeared,
                      white feathers started sprouting
                      from my shoulders and back
                      in a furious itch of stiff follicles,
                      the weird tickle of snowy down

                      it all began when more and more
                      damaged butterflies appeared
                      with stunted or crumpled wings 

                      and the stained glass windows
                      of cicadas’ wings turned into
                      a tangled lace mesh crocheted
                      by a bent, contaminated hook

                      soon the hypnotic thrum
                      and drone pulsing the horizon
                      during late summer nights
                      fell silent: no power-tool surge
                      of cicadas, no squeak-shined
                      scrubbing or tambourine jingle
                      from the katydids and crickets                                   

                      the gwa gwa gwa of frogs
                      stopped from invisible ponds                                     

                      and even towns just outside
                      the nuclear exclusion zone
                      became ghost towns, too,
                      when barn swallows lost
                      all of their blues, turning
                      into albino ghosts, before
                      abandoning their mud nests
                      tucked under house eaves,
                      leaving them to decay until
                      all of the birdsong was gone
                      and everything was irradiated
                      by a blinding wash of silence 

                      my parents begged me
                      to tell no one about
                      the white swallow wings
                      feathering my back

                      my father worked for TEPCO
                      cleaning up radioactive topsoil
                      in the no go zone
                      and didn’t want any trouble

                      my mother was worried
                      I’d be shunned as damaged,
                      so she bound down
                      my wings every morning
                      until they ached under gauze
                      and I felt crumpled
                      and stunted as one of
                      the deformed butterflies,
                      or the pruned-down bonsai
                      my grandfather in Ukedo
                      trained to grow into
                      strange transfigurations 

                      before my grandfather
                      disappeared during the tsunami
                      I visited him every year
                      during amba matsuri
                      the festival of the safe wave 

                      I loved how he split open
                      fresh salmon with a silver
                      fish knife to squeeze out
                      sticky orange roe directly
                      onto hot rice for breakfast 

                      now coastal fishing boats
                      rock crippled in their harbors,
                      crumpled sails pinned down,
                      going on fake runs, only
                      so scientists can test
                      for cesium levels in the fish

                      my wings grow larger
                      and more unwieldy, become
                      difficult for me to hide
                      underneath my hoody 

                      sometimes I stand on the roof
                      of the tallest building
                      in Minamisoma and think that
                      if I jumped, then everyone
                      would finally know the truth 

                      barn swallows are said
                      to be harbingers of luck
                      so maybe I could be like
                      the tsubame who returns,
                      bearing good fortune

                      I could fly across the river
                      looping over water
                      bright with the hot swirl
                      of irradiated golden carp 

                      I could fly all the way
                      across the border patrols
                      into the no go zone

                      I could fly all the way
                      back to Ukedo to search
                      for my missing grandfather
                      because ever since
                      the insects died off
                      and stopped their singing,
                      I can hear his lost
                      and desecrated bones
                      tapping out an SOS
                      into the too-quiet nights:

                      please help me
                      I am lost

                      please help me
                      I am lost

ghosts of the tohoku coast

                      of course, the ghosts are everywhere: 

                      the face that blooms confused
                      in an unfurling peony bud

                      the dog who doesn’t know it’s dead
                      returning to search for the child
                      who used to pet and play with it

                      the fisherman who comes to shore
                      with early morning’s neatly mended nets
                      looking for his small docked boat                             

                      taking taxi rides / wanting to go home
                      demanding to know: am I still alive?        

                      oyurushi / oyurushi

                      whisked tea leaves whispering
                      from the bottom of a cup

                      the dancing funnel cloud of dust
                      that rises from a beaten futon

                      a murmuration of tiny gnats
                      helixing up like incense from
                      shriveled fruit at the broken altar

                      the jumble of unsortable bones
                      dustpanned out to sea

                      the husband / the wife
                      the mother / the daughter
                      the son / the father
                      the sister / the brother 

                      all searching for what’s been lost

                      driven by the electric pain
                      of phantom limbs
                      seizing up like dowsing rods

                      the grief of empty cicada shells
                      for what’s been torn out trying
                      to fill themselves back up
                      with the transparency of rain

                      how many centuries will it take
                      for these stricken mists
                      and fogs to be burned away?

                      for this haunted water
                      to evaporate / to be exorcised
                       and rinsed clean again by light? 

*These poems are from tsunami vs. the fukushima 50, Milkweed Editions, 2019 and copyrighed by the author.


© 2019 Lee Ann Roripaugh

Lee Ann Roripaugh Poetry Tohoku Tsunami and Earthquake

Sobre esta serie

Nikkei al descubierto: una columna de poesía es un espacio destinado a la comunidad nikkei para compartir historias a través de diversas composiciones sobre cultura, historia y experiencia personal. La columna presentará una amplia variedad de formas poéticas y contenido con temas que incluyen historia, raíces, identidad; historia—el pasado en el presente; la comida como ritual, celebración y legado; rituales y supuestos de tradiciones; lugar, ubicación y comunidad así como el amor.

Hemos invitado a la autora, artista y poetisa traci kato-kiriyama para que sea la curadora de esta columna de poesía mensual, en donde publicaremos a uno o dos poetas los tercer jueves de cada mes, desde escritores mayores o jóvenes que recién empiezan en la poesía a autores publicados de todo el país. Esperamos descubrir una red de voces vinculadas entre sí a través de innumerables diferencias y experiencias conectadas.